Vibrant Newark neighborhood grows from small home improvements

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on December 18, 2015

 

The outreach worker from the Urban League of Essex County was polite and sincere, but Marie Parfait had a hard time swallowing her spiel. 

The social agency planned to take a section of Parfait's block – Littleton Avenue, between South Orange and 13th   avenues – and turn it into a model neighborhood in Newark.

There would be new sidewalks landscaped with white flowering dogwood ornamental trees and an assortment of shrubbery such as red twig, oak leaf and beach plum. Money also was available to help homeowners fix up their property and each front lawn would get decorative lampposts.

The best part was that it wouldn't cost residents in the Fairmount Heights section of the West Ward a penny. That's right, free.

Was this too good to be true?

"When I heard that, I didn't believe it,'' Parfait said, of the pitch made several months ago.

 The only thing that homeowners had to do was sign up. Parfait, who has lived on the block 47 years, agreed to participate – even though she didn't think anything was going to happen.  

"I said, 'Okay, I'll try my luck,' '' she said. "We'll see.''

Many other homeowners were skeptical, too. The Urban League could only get seven or eight of them to sign up, even after community meetings that were held in addition to knocking on doors.

But once the agency started doing the work, including construction of four new homes on the block, residents quickly became converts.

A total of 23 out of 28 homeowners jumped at the project,  funded with a grant totaling nearly $200,000 from the state's Neighborhood Revitalization Tax program, which is administered through the Department of Community Affairs.

As the project progressed, Littleton Avenue – a mix of Victorian and two- and three-family wood-frame homes – was changing from a neighborhood that Newark police said was a "hot spot" for drugs to one in which people want to live.

And it only took seven months for this experiment to take hold after the Urban League teamed up with Newark's Local Initiatives Support Corporation, another community group. The goal: Reconstruct this section of the West Ward and then continue the improvements on nearby streets.

"What we've done, it's no longer considered a hot spot,'' said Urban League president Vivian Fraser. "We're excited by the impact of the work we're doing with residents.''

The result has been huge. Since the improvements, Newark police said property crimes such as auto thefts and burglaries have gone down to levels that are hardly noticeable.

"In my opinion, they have disappeared,'' said Detective Anthony Williams.  "I don't hear the calls of service we used to have over there.''

A once dreary-looking street is now vibrant. At dusk, it is well-lighted, with uniform decorative lampposts that stand in a single line across front yards.  During the day and on weekends, it's quiet, except for the occasional ambulance siren or the sounds of contractors hammering away on homes they're renovating.

Homeowners say they take pride in the block, spending time to talk to one another, choosing not to put up with nonsense anymore. Landlords also fixed up their properties, once they saw what was taking place.

"They're (residents) taking the initiative to keep up their property and sweep up in front of their place,'' said Pastor James Bailey, whose church – Vineyard Baptist Church – is on the street. "The mood is uplifting.''

There's less litter, if any, especially those shopping circulars that used to stay on the sidewalk. Passersby walking from the corner store are hesitant about throwing trash on the ground because, as Parfait said, everything looks so nice now. Even dog owners carry plastic bags to scoop up after their pets and motorists remember to park their cars on the proper side of the street so the city can breeze through with a street sweeper.

"I've been on the block and I've seen it go up and down,'' said homeowner Wade Tapp. "But this is the best that it has ever been in 30 years. It's like going back to how it used to be years ago, when everybody looked out for one another.''

When he's out and about on the block, Tapp said, residents from other streets stop by, wanting to know how their block can be a part of the improvement program. Or he'll just see people drive down the street, gazing at the workmanship.

The Urban League kept its word, and plans to do more.

"We're going to try to keep repeating this on other blocks,'' said Leonard Robbins, director of real estate project management for the Urban League.

Residents now have to do their part, by maintaining what has been started. They'll get a chance to prove their commitment by showing up at a meeting to celebrate the change that was needed. Do you live in a neighborhood where people hardly know one another, or in a community where they care and keep an eye on the block?

Hint, hint everyone.  

That means a lot of people should attend the noon celebration at Pastor Bailey's church on Saturday.

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